TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 1

BOOK IV: TWILIGHT’S DREAMING

Chapter 1

As dusk is falling

Dreams are dark and filled with dread

Debts must be repaid

“Long, long ago, when the world was wild, there lived a samurai of great renown. Some called him the Shogun reborn, others called him a demon in mortal flesh, but all lands knew his name: Hayaoh! His eyes were steel, his heart a stone, his sword an eternal razor edge that cut through the wicked as easily as air. Few approached Hayaoh and lived to tell the tale, for he was known to be as merciless in wrath as he was in resting. Like the wind, he seldom stayed in one place for long, wandering the hills and valleys in search of his next battle and his next worthy opponent…”

[Excerpt from The Legend of Hayaoh, a collection of squirrel folklore, circa Year 500]

At twilight, she wanders through a darkened forest, naked and afraid. When the hour slips between day and night, the ancient woods are cast in an eerie glow of dying orange light that chills her to the bone, for reasons she cannot understand. Nothing is familiar; even her body feels like that of a stranger. This hair, this fur, this tail, all wrong… she feels a powerful urge to tear at herself, at the flesh that slowly suffocates her like a living, breathing prison.

I should not be here. The thought trails behind her as part of her shadow, whispering to her the same words every time: I should not be here. No matter how she tries to shut it out, the thought oozes into her ears and sinks into her skull all the same.

Faces loom ahead out of semi-darkness. Awash with belief, she runs for her friends, calling out their names, desperate to escape the whispers and the night she knows is coming, closer and closer with each passing second, inexorable, unstoppable. They are her everything, they can shield her from the dark before it falls.

The first is a huge but gentle presence, forever on hand with wisdom and understanding, safe and comforting as the fires of a hearth. He smells of iron and embers, of ink, paper, and leather bindings.

The second is a bright light and a mischievous smile, sharp and daring, often teasing but always well-meaning, a source of laughter even in troubled times, always an adventure waiting to happen.

And the third… the third is dark and mysterious, but she feels for him as she does for no one else. He is her rock. A noble heart for one so troubled, one who faces pain and overcomes it in ways she knows she never can.

She calls their names, but there is no sound from her lips. No matter how she tries to shout for them, they cannot hear. In desperation, she throws out her hand. The flower she wears behind her ear twitches… Thorned vines creep down her neck and shoulder and snake around her arm, coiling tight. The thorns break her skin and draw blood… and the vines sail out through space and plunge themselves into the hearts of her three beloved friends.

Her blood turns to ice. She screams, but there is no sound.

Their chests burst in crimson fountains. Their eyes grow wide with shock and betrayal as they frost over like clouded glass. She can only watch them wither as the life drains from them, bit by bit. It seems to take years before they fall the forest floor… when they do, they strike the loam with impacts that sound like distant thunder.

It’s my fault. In the ringing silence that follows, she knows with absolute certainty that that thought comes not from the shadow… it is her own.

It’s my fault. I hurt them, just like I hurt everyone. They’re dead. They’re dead. They’re dead. They’re dead, because of me…

I should not be here.

The thorns dig deeper into her flesh, and as she howls soundlessly in the twilight, they spread their poisoned roots through her every vein, growing, growing, unstoppable. Her nerves burn like the sun as a thousand thorns erupt from inside her flesh, tearing her apart—

Hanami sat bolt upright in her bed, every inch of her fur standing upright and her heart pounding a drumbeat in her breast. The last, fatal scream of her nightmare was still upon her lips. Heaving for breath in the darkness of her bedroom, she clutched herself tight, expecting to feel the prickling, burning sensation of the thorns erupting at any moment. Another dream. Another horrible dream. This was the fourth time in a week. And yet again, the thought chased her from the realm of sleep and lingered in the back of her mind:

I should not be here.

 


 

“Takky,” said Faun Muranaka in a hushed tone that was quite unusual for her, “this is insane.”

“It’s a debt,” said Zero Takaishi. One did not need to look at the buck’s bloodshot eyes to see the great weariness that clung to him like clouds. It was all there in his words, low and leaden with sorrow. “Debts need to be repaid.”

Faun’s gloved knuckles rapped gently against his skull. “You get us caught by the cookware while you’re half-asleep, see if they care about your debt. We should come back when you’re not dead on your feet.”

“No.” Zero shook his head. “We’ve come this far. It’ll be one less thing to worry about.”

They crouched together behind an immaculately trimmed hydrangea shrub in the eastern courtyard of Centralis Fanum, the holiest temple of the Silver Order. Located at the heart of Unify, Centralis Fanum was a sprawling, majestic structure, resplendent with white marble and alabaster columns, spotless walls free of the accumulated grime of the rest of the central city, and clean-scrubbed ebony floors polished to an almost mirror-like sheen.

At least, that was how it was supposed to be. Three weeks after the Soulsnatcher’s terrible rampage through their most sacred grounds, the Order sistren and brethren still struggled to restore Centralis Fanum to its former pristine glory. It was an expensive and laborious process; scores of those beautiful ebony floorboards had to be torn up and replaced, for they were soiled by the blood of the three dozen that the Soulsnatcher murdered on that night. The Order’s edict for their temples demanded that any surface touched by unjustly spilled blood was forever desecrated and must be disposed of with fire. Squirrel temples had similar edicts, but the sight of piles and piles of floorboards stacked up to be burned on the way inside struck Zero as an awful waste.

A waste. That was what the last three weeks had been for him in most part. Though he searched day and night throughout all of Tasakeru for any sign of Naole, there was not so much as a brick-red hair. His little sister was nowhere to be found. If she was even still alive, she was out there somewhere… cold and alone in a hostile forest that even he, a resident of nine years, could barely survive sometimes. Hopelessness crept up on Zero like some insidious disease; it was only his unflagging determination (or stubbornness) that kept him going.

The trip to Unify to repay his debt was a diversion as much as anything. It was a way to keep himself going, to relieve himself of at least one burden. Faun insisted on coming along, telling him repeatedly that his constant worry and lack of sleep would lead to his getting caught without her help.

At last, after twenty minutes, the Order knights assigned to patrol the grounds left their routes to change shifts. Seizing the opportunity, Zero and Faun dashed across the lawn and pressed themselves against the temple’s eastern wall as if trying to melt into it. They were blocked from view for the most part by rows of flowering hedges, but both knew that it was best to never underestimate an Order knight.

“I think it’s this side,” muttered Zero to Faun. “From what I remember, Naole usually worked here, in the East Wing infirmary.”

Faun blew air through her lips, causing her auburn bangs to flutter with the draft. “You really think Little Lady Sunshine would be convalescing with the rest of the mortals? Takky, you are crazy. She’s probably got a private wing of her own, and a silver-gilded chamber pot or something.”

Zero blanched. “I really needed that image, Faun, thank you. Honestly, she’s not nearly as haughty and stuffed-up as you think she is. She gave me the dagger of her own free will, when she had no reason to. Against Lady Lily’s wishes, even.”

“I still don’t like her. People born that rich make my fur stand up.”

“You don’t have to talk to her if you don’t want to,” said Zero. “All I need you to do is stand guard.”

“Fine, fine.” The vixen waved a hand. “Just get it over with so we can go back home and you can get some sleep.”

From inside there came a war cry, muffled by the thick marble walls but still sharp. It was shortly followed by another, and another, in a regular sequence with precise timing.

“That’s her,” said Zero, inching along the wall. “Keep watch, and swish your tail if you see anything.”

“Will do.”

Moving carefully, Zero stood to his full height and peered into the infirmary’s window. He could not help but grin and shake his head at what he saw inside.

Truly, only Lady Nadeshiko Argenteus, Vice-Mistress and Field Commander of the Silver Order, would practice her swordplay in her infirmary room instead of getting the rest prescribed by her healers. A savage bite wound to the shoulder? To her, that was an annoyance at best. The healers would not allow the young skunk to wear her full armor while she practiced, of course, but Gods help anyone who tried to take her greatsword away from her. Zero watched her run through her form with some admiration, thrusting and weaving the massive silver-edged slab like a weapon a quarter of its size. Her piercing green eyes were set, her breathing even, her striped tail with its single wide white bar held high like a banner. It amused Zero to see that even when under the healers’ care, Nadeshiko took pains to not let a single platinum blonde hair escape from her braid. If it were not for the infirmary gown that Zero was quite sure she was being forced to wear, one might think she had never been injured at all.

That impression lasted until one high swing pulled a muscle in her bad shoulder the wrong way. Nadeshiko’s face twisted, and the greatsword fell from her grasp and clanged against the floor as she clutched the bandages on her shoulder. Something that was close to an obscenity formed on her lips, but with the effort of a lifetime of noble upbringing, she suppressed it.

As good a moment to interrupt as ever, Zero supposed. He knocked on the window pane.

Nadeshiko’s ears perked. Pain or no pain, she scooped up the greatsword and rushed to the window, holding it in a defensive stance. “Who’s there? Show yourself, coward!”

Zero tilted the pane inward. “Easy, Milady. It’s me, Takaishi.”

“Ta…” In a moment of genuine surprise, Nadeshiko’s bearing slipped. “Takaishi…? What in the Goddess’s name possessed you to come here? Need I remind you that you are forbidden from setting foot in—”

“I’m well aware.” Carefully, Zero slid the silver dagger through the window. “I’m returning this.”

It took a moment for Nadeshiko to register what she was seeing. It was her family’s blessed silver dagger, the one she gave to Takaishi three weeks ago as she lay wounded. The weapon bore a few scarce spots of blood that had not been there before, but someone had made an impressive effort to clean it. “You… you came all this way to…” She took the dagger and held it to her breast as if cradling a child. “Then… you did it?”

Zero nodded grimly. “Stalker’s dead. The dagger helped. Thank you.”

Conflicting feelings swam inside Nadeshiko. In truth, she never expected to see Takaishi or the dagger again… giving it to him was an uncharacteristic act of optimism on her part. Yet here he was, victorious, having braved arrest once again to return her family’s heirloom. A small part of her was touched. “I…” Her face grew warm, and her ears swiveled back. “I thank you, Takaishi, and I commend you for slaying that beast.”

“It was my pleasure.” Zero’s voice turned cold and hard as the marble wall he leaned on.

Nadeshiko inched closer to the window. Now she saw the redness in the squirrel’s eyes, and she knew that all was not well. “Your sibling, Sister Naole. Did you—”

Zero cringed as if struck. “No. I’m still looking for her. Stalker wouldn’t tell me where she was, what he did with her… or if she’s even still alive. I’ve searched everywhere, but…” His sentence trailed off.

She understood. Three weeks lost in Tasakeru with little food and little fresh water. The odds were not in Sister Naole’s favor. To her astonishment, Nadeshiko found herself hurting for Takaishi. Family was sacred to her kind, and he had been arrested dozens of times trying to care for his sister in her infirmity. She should know; many of those times she had arrested him and thrown him in prison herself. After checking to ensure no one was watching, Nadeshiko crouched down lower to the window and whispered, “I apologize, Takaishi. I truly hope you find her.”

“Not to put a damper on things,” said another voice, “but can you two hurry?”

All of Nadeshiko’s sympathy evaporated like morning dew, and her tail fur stood up until it resembled a bottlebrush. “You—” she sputtered. “You brought that guttersnipe with you?!”

“And good morning to you too, Milady,” said Faun, with a hard point on that last word. “Come on, Takky, finish up.”

Zero glanced to his right. “Do you see the knights coming back?”

“No,” said Faun, “but we’re downwind of her, and I’ve got a sensitive nose.”

“Why you—” Nadeshiko sounded like a tea kettle as she hissed through gritted teeth, searching for an insult strong enough. “You harridan! How dare you say such foul things within my own home!”

“I’ll mock you wherever I please, thanks,” said Faun, flashing a savage grin. “Easy, Ginko. You’ll burst a blood vessel.”

Nadeshiko bristled and drew herself to her full height. “My name is Lady Nadeshiko Argenteus, daughter of the Argenteus House and—”

“And rightful bearer of the divine branch up your divine hind.” Faun made a show of yawning. “Takky, really, we should go.”

Zero rather thought they should. Faun and Nadeshiko had developed a profound mutual loathing of each other from the moment they first met, and if they stayed in each other’s vicinity any longer, things were likely to turn violent. “Right,” he said. “Milady, thanks again for the dagger, and I apologize for Faun. If I do find Naole… I’ll send her back to you as soon as I can.”

With considerable effort, Nadeshiko pushed aside her detest of the vixen to finish things properly. “S-she will be welcomed back with open arms, Takaishi. Good luck.”

There were no further words. Two shadows, one black and one orange, raced across the grounds, up the boundary wall, and out of sight. A great urge rose within Nadeshiko to call the knights to arms, if only to find and punish Muranaka for her rudeness… but then, she considered, they would catch Takaishi too. Just this once, she felt she owed him a clean escape. Debts had to be repaid.

END OF CHATPER 1

<- BACK TO SECOND VOLUME INTRODUCTION

NEXT CHAPTER ->

SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 3

Chapter 3

Preparations made

Shoring up the defenses

To strike at the heart

“Something evil comes a-lurking

Baring fangs, in shadows smirking:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

Wander not at night alone,

Lest he take you for his own:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

Meet not his gaze, his maddened eyes

And listen not unto his lies:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

His razor teeth, his foul breath,

His ragged claws, all steeped in death:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

Your soul will writhe in endless hell

When takes he, leaving but a shell:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!”

[Folk song dating from late Year 1349, attributed to Marlowe the Mad Bard]

In the deepest heart of Centralis Fanum lay the Grandmistress’s private meditation chamber. Precious few sentients were allowed here; only those of the Argenteus bloodline and their most trusted attendants ever set foot inside it. The chamber acquired a kind of mythical status over the years as a result. Many Order sistren and brethren wondered: what was behind those heavy mahogany double doors? Fabulous riches? Unseemly pleasures? Forbidden magic?

Those who wondered the most would doubtless have been disappointed if they saw the chamber for themselves. While its furnishings changed every time the title of Grandmistress passed from mother to daughter, it had never strayed much from the concept that Mistress Emeritus Lotus envisioned thirty-three generations ago: a place of peace. A place of warmth, of quiet, of contemplation.

Soft colors dominated the chamber, pastel yellows, greens, and blues. Straight lines and sharp edges were kept to a bare minimum, and there were gentle arches were everywhere. The most striking feature was the water, a natural stream that ran right through the middle of the chamber. Fragrant lotus blossoms floated lazily on the stream’s surface in all seasons of the year, a permanent tribute to the namesake of the Order’s founder. Overlooking the stream was an old spruce footbridge coated in rose-colored lacquer, arcing from one bank to the other. Though there was a throne reserved for the use of the current Grandmistress, Lily preferred to kneel on a cushion on the bridge, with candles burning low in the sconces that lined its supports. There she sat now, swathed in simple white robes, her eyes closed, her tail curled around herself, and her expression unreadable.

When Nadeshiko came through the doors moments later, she seemed an affront to what the meditation chamber stood for: in full, spotless white-and-chrome armor with greatsword at her side, as usual, not a trace of softness or gentleness in her expression, her lips drawn tight in what Lily feared would become a semi-permanent frown. “Mother,” she said by way of greeting. “I’ve just spoken with some of the head scribes of the news scrolls. They told me that-”

“Little One,” Lily sighed. Beneath her closed lids, her eyes rolled. “Please, I beg of you. Calm yourself.”

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 2

Caution and conquest

A monster and a maiden

The theft of a soul

 

“Being haunted is the mark of people who have made important decisions. Some of us are haunted by mistakes we’ve made; failures and flaws; words spoken in anger; lovers lost;  misdeeds that can never be redeemed; the best of intentions, gone wrong. And some of us are haunted by doing the right thing, because sometimes that can be the the worst of all.”

[Final words of Lady Crocus Argenteus, 31st Grandmistress of the Silver Order, Years 1201 – 1240]

 

“I don’t know about this, Faun.”

“Come on, don’t be so timid. He’s right there.”

“But-”

“Look, Flowers. As your friend, I’m telling you to go for it. You know you’re never going to do it if you keep hesitating. It’s your move, it’s your moment. Go.

“I just don’t think it’s right.”

“What’s not right about it? He’s open, you know he is. Yours for the taking, so take the advantage, girl! Get over there and rut him..”

“A-all right…” With trembling fingers, Hanami reached for the carved wooden figure. Her eyes were set as she moved the scout over the head of Faun’s paladin and placed it in the square behind it. Satisfied, she took up the captured paladin and dropped it in the cloth pouch on her side of the board.

Faun waited until her paladin was in the bag, then leaned forward. “You’re sure, right? You’re positive that’s your move?”

Hanami nodded. “Yes.”

The vixen’s face split into a triumphant grin that stretched from ear to pointed ear. “Gotcha!” Snatching up her scholar, she jumped it over Hanami’s scout… and her mage, and her archer, then finally over her noble, knocking it over for good measure. “Shouri. You owe me two hundred tri.”

A moan of despair escaped Hanami. “Not again” After handing over her coins, she slumped in her seat. Her tail drooped in abject misery. “That’s four games in a row. Faun, you’re a genius at this game, I don’t know how you talk me into this…”

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 1

BOOK III: SOULSNATCHER

Chapter 1

On an autumn night

Innocent lives cross paths with

Hunters in the dark

 

“Let us lay to rest a common misconception: though the Outcasts of Tasakeru (at least, those of the era that this book covers, with Hanami, Zero Takaishi, Faun Muranaka, Rowan Longstripe, and the rest being by far the most well-known of them all) are considered folk heroes, they were by no means seen as such at the time. According to most stories, the Magistrate Representatives and their various species governments made every effort to paint them as traitors, outlaws, scoundrels, and what-have-you. This despite the fact that, Muranaka aside, they were not career criminals… at least, not in the traditional sense. The majority of the Outcasts of that era were exiled for violating cultural taboos, rather than exhibiting criminal malice: Hanami for use of magic, Longstripe on his own volition as an act of symbolic protest, etc.

“Of course, that is not to say that all Outcasts were considered heroes. Far from it, in fact. Some Outcasts were undoubtedly exiled for very good reason…”

[An excerpt from The Outcasts in Fact and Folklore, by Hill Jakes]

 

The problem was that they just couldn’t see. Couldn’t, or wouldn’t. It was because of that stubborn blindness on their part, that refusal to see what was right in front of them, that he had to do it. He wasn’t to blame. He had done no wrong. Why couldn’t they understand that?

The young brute wolf thought these bitter thoughts to himself as he trudged through the  forest at close to midnight. His dark eyes glowered, hidden in part by strands of long, lank black hair that threw the details of his features into perpetual shadow. Perhaps he would have been handsome, had he groomed himself with more care: the claws on each of his long, thin fingers were ragged and overgrown, and his fur was shaggy and unkempt over a lean, wiry frame. Like many wolves, he normally eschewed clothing. Unlike almost all of the wolves, however, his fur bore no markings, no patterns, no indication of any kind that he belonged to a pack.

This was because he didn’t. Not anymore.

They exiled him. They made him an Outcast, because they couldn’t see.

Fools, all of them.

Why couldn’t they understand? He explained it to them over and over, but each time they refused to listen to reason. They imprisoned him, stripped him of his markings, exiled him out to Tasakeru in the cold autumn night. They couldn’t see.

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ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 3

Chapter 3

A clever mind knows

How to take the advantage

When the Goddess calls

 

            “When examining the life and legend of Faun Muranaka, it is important to note a few things: first, that for all the enduring tales of her heroic deeds alongside the other Outcasts, that she was and is by no means seen as a purely virtuous figure. To the contrary, stories abound of her sneaking into Unify and leaving chaos in her wake. A comprehensive list of her crimes (apart from repeatedly ignoring the terms of her exile, of course) includes but is not limited to: public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, reckless endangerment, disturbing the peace, breaking and entering, destruction of property, vandalism, a host of assault charges, numerous accounts of fraud both major and minor, and violation of obscenity laws. This last one is particularly notable, as it was apparently us, her own kind, who placed obscenity charges against her. One might think it patently impossible for we foxes of all species to find anything to be obscene enough to place charges, but Faun Muranaka found a way.

            “Which leads us to the second point: Muranaka was, first and foremost, a thief. She was incarcerated more times for this than for any of her other crimes, in cases ranging from simple petty theft and shoplifting to grand mal larceny. Rumors persist that the forge that her comrade Rowan Longstripe used during his Outcast days was procured for him from one of Unify’s leading blacksmiths. The entire forge, so the legend goes, was stolen by Muranaka alone, and somehow smuggled out of the city without anyone noticing. Again, some might call that impossible, but Muranaka apparently found a way. Some variants of the story claim that she stole it piece by piece over a period of months, until the poor, baffled smith was left with nothing but an empty room.

            “Understanding Faun’s propensity for theft may be key to understanding why she did what she did during that early autumn when the last Titan reemerged from his prison. The subject puzzles many who study Outcast lore: by all accounts, Muranaka and Hanami were close and trusted friends, risking their lives for each other on countless occasions. Why, then, would Muranaka deliberately deceive her friend and steal her most precious possession? Was it out of greed? Desire to help the last Titan? A self-imposed challenge? We may never know.”

[An excerpt from The Outcasts in Fact and Folklore, by Hill Jakes]

 

This is stupid.

That thought occurred to Zero with such abruptness that he stopped his pacing in mid-step, almost twisting an ankle. The many papers scattered around his drey fluttered in the sudden breeze.

It’s stupid, he thought, frowning at himself. Why the hell should I be afraid of talking to Hanami? She’s a friend, for Gods’ sakes. Friends talk to each other. There’s absolutely no reason for how I acted. So what if she finds out what I was reading? It was inexcusable of me. Gods, I’m an idiot.

I’ll apologize. Zero nodded, straightened his robes and headband, and made for the door. The metal platings on his boots made decisive sounds, a series of purposeful clack noises as he crossed the wooden floorboards, tail held high. Right. I’ll apologize, and then everything will go back to normal.

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ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 2

Chapter 2

A home in the woods

A tale of power and pride

Shades of ages past

 

“In shadow lay she, in an earthly bed

A crown of lilies white upon her head

‘Beneath the boughs, I’ll wait for thee,’ she said

To gaze upon her was my heart’s delight

To hear her laugh would set my soul alight

Her form, her shape, alluring as the night

Oh, maiden! That again I’d be with thee!

But now, forever rest thee ‘neath that tree

The love that was, ‘tis ever not to be…”

[“In Shadow Lay She”, a poem by Sanshiro]

            Faun and the enormous jackal stared at each other. Or, more accurately, Faun stared up at the jackal, and the black rock crystal eyes set in the jackal’s gold visage stared back down at her. It was unnerving, knowing he could somehow see her through the… mask? Headdress? Helmet? What was he wearing, anyway? It made him seem even bigger, more like a statue than he already was. There was something very off about him, mask (or headdress, or helmet) aside, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was.

“Um.” Faun swallowed. This was one of the rare times in her life when she was left searching for something to say. “You… you can talk now…”

“I could always talk,” said Seker, an ominous thrum entering his voice.

Uh oh. “I mean, in New Standard! You weren’t speaking it before, so how did you-”

“The barrier absorbed my magic. With it gone, I only required a moment of contact with you to hear your thoughts and grasp your language. A simple reader’s trick… any decent mist mage could do the same.”

“Right, the barrier.” Faun nodded. A tiny voice in the back of her mind began to question exactly what she had gotten herself into. “I bet you’re glad to be out of there, huh?”

“Yes.” His response was terse, with very little feeling behind it… stark contrast to how he first spoke to her. “Indeed I am.”

“Good, good. Folks shouldn’t be locked up like that. I would know.” After a long, excruciating pause, she added: “Especially not for… how long did you say you were down here, again?”

“Three thousand years.” There was no hesitation to Seker’s answer, no searching for a figure. “More accurately, three thousand, five hundred and seventy years, nine months, and twenty-one days, as of today.”

For a few seconds, the fact that he could recall the exact length of his imprisonment with that degree of accuracy was even more upsetting to Faun than the length itself. It took several seconds more for that figure to sink in. “That…” Her throat felt quite dry all of a sudden. “That’s… a long time to be asleep…”

“I did not sleep.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“I was awake for the entire duration.” Again, just a blunt statement of fact.

“How-”

“There is much you must know, vixen.” Seker brushed past her, heading for the arch she entered through. His heavy footfalls rang off the sandstone walls with every step. “Please, walk with me.”

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ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 1

BOOK II: ETERNITY AWAKES

Chapter 1

Sands of the desert

Cover an ancient secret

Lost in time, it waits

“Kamen Desert is not natural. That much should be obvious to anyone who looks at it. The world contains a few small stretches of what we call ‘wastelands’, inhospitable areas charted by the wolves and studied by the rabbits, but otherwise of no use to sentientkind. However, just because they are of no use to us does not make them useless to other creatures. There are remarkable creatures that make the wastelands their homes: dune snakes, armored scorpions, birds that roost in hollow gourds, even a few species of hardy mice. There are useful dry grasses, flowering aloe plants, and even a few thin trees… there is much to be found if one takes the time to scratch the surface.

            “Kamen Desert has none of those things. Travel far south enough from Unify, and after a certain point, the rolling hills of grass simply… stop. There is a dividing line, an eerily smooth line, separating the grasslands’ southernmost border from the miles upon miles of burning sand.

            “To put it simply, there is nothing there. No plants, no animals, no water, nothing save for endless dunes of fine white sand reaching to the shores of the endless sea. Some see the place as an extension of the Beneath, for understandable reasons. Some claim that on the Day of Three Gods, the Death God’s terrible gaze landed directly on this area, cursing it barren forever more.

“And others… others theorize that Kamen Desert is where the Titans lived. The Titans, of course, are known from the very few surviving Lost Ages records as the world’s ninth sentient species, but they are long since disappeared. Preserved in museums throughout Unify are priceless ancient carvings and drawings of a giant people similar to the wolves and foxes, a people that built great angular towers to the skies and possessed forgotten magic. Though we have lost all but a fraction of what we knew of the world before the Species War, there is enough evidence to support that the Titans did indeed exist, and were not a creation of lore.

            “If they did exist, though… where did they go, and why?”

[An excerpt from Parts of the Whole: A Guide to World Cultures, by Ash Caeruleus]

It was the same sun that shone down upon Tasakeru, Unify, and the rest of the world… but in the desert it was a sinister thing that sapped all life and water from the cursed place, leaving only sand and relentless heat. Even the wind here was beastly hot and dry as bone, and there were no trees or buildings to provide any kind of relief. That sun beat down upon Kamen Desert as if trying to punish mortals for their arrogance.

The lone source of shade was in a pit dug fifty meters deep into the sand, excavated by earth mages who had been paid handsomely for their service. Some mad, rich hobferret claimed half a year ago that he had received guidance from the Magus Aurum Ruby himself in a dream, and personally financed the mages to dig out here, here where there was nothing at all to be found. It was good work if one could get it, even if it was pointless… or so they thought.

The discovery shocked and amazed historians, explorers, and adventurers the world over. Fifty meters down, the reports said, the earth mages found something… not sand, but something solid. Everyone who could stand the heat joined in the excavation, with earth magic, shovels, and their own hands, until the solid thing beneath the sands was uncovered: an obelisk. One single, enormous obelisk made of sandstone and inscribed with ancient writing… For anyone who knew their history, it only meant one thing: a remnant of the Titans had at last been found.

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New Artwork by AWD!

Hanami and Faun, by TheMadCatter

Hanami and Faun, by TheMadCatter

This dynamic piece comes from TheMadCatter / Andrew “AWD!”Dickman! What a fantastic addition to the Gallery!

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WITHOUT A NAME, CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 3

Strangers become friends

Watching dancing fireflies

Outcasts’ gathering

“And so it was. We heeded the words, and change and new life flourished throughout the world. From our savagery, we were uplifted into civilizations, each one based upon worship of the Gods that so awed and terrified us. We called the brutal battles of our past the Last War, in hopes that it would ever be thus. We reclaimed the land, healed it as best we could, and made it our own. We tamed the animals, the goats, sheep, hogboars, and fowl, nurturing them as if they were our own children. Where there was once only ruin, we built homes, towns, villages… and Unify, our capital city.

“Built in a circle around the Shinju, the great tree that the Goddess of Life raised in the world’s center, named to remind us of the message that the Gods gave unto us, Unify spread as our numbers grew. Among the Shinju’s roots we mingled, sharing our stories and our knowledge, and under her boughs we slept in peace. When it came time to lead ourselves, those chosen by each species took to meeting high up in her crown, where the Representatives could see all of Unify spread out before them.

“For a while, it was paradise… but then, to our sorrow, our belief in the Gods led to more conflict than ever…”

[An excerpt from Godlore: Our Sacred Legacy and Foundations of Society, by Ash Caeruleus]

“Well, kitto, there it is!”

A gasp left Hanami’s lips as Faun pulled aside the underbrush blocking their view of a grassy clearing.

At the clearing’s center, under a canopy of stars, there stood a huge slab of granite. Ten meters across, it was low enough to the ground that one could step up onto it without having to climb. Its surface was almost perfectly flat, smoothed and leveled by who knew how many centuries of rain, and so polished that it reflected some of the light of the late summer moon above. In the center of the rock there were a half-dozen logs, each large enough to sit on and covered by a hand-woven blanket. The logs surrounded a shallow dip in the rock’s surface, in which lay a pile of blackened timber and ash, the remnants of a fire. All around, the air glimmered with tiny, lazily drifting yellow lights blinking off and on… there was a company of fireflies out tonight, engaged in a courtship dance.

“It’s beautiful,” said Hanami in a hushed tone as she climbed over the edge. The place was like an illustration out of the old storybooks she loved as a child.

Faun shrugged and grabbed a blanket, wadding it into a rough ball shape before she sat down on it. “It’s not much, but we like it.”

“I can see why.” Smiling, Hanami took her own seat, folding her hands in her lap… which was when she heard and felt something tear. Her ears turned back; doubtless, one of the numerous gashes the branches had made in her tunic had just split open even further. Her lip trembled as she tugged at the fabric, trying to conceal the damage.

“Oi,” chided Faun. “Leave it alone, it’ll tear even worse if you do that.  Dijo, I told you you can have some of my clothes when we get back to my den.”

“Erm,” said Hanami. While she was beyond grateful for the offer, that wasn’t exactly a comforting statement. More

WITHOUT A NAME, CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 2

A new arrival

Dusk upon a frigid lake

A flash of sunset

“Everyone is taught the story at an early age. Ask any cub, pup, or kit old enough to speak, and they will tell you. It is the story of the world, how it rose from a state of blood and chaos to become the society we know today.  They may tell you different names, or different motives, but at its heart, the story is always the same, and it always begins like this:

“Long ago, the world’s eight sentient species were locked in endless violence and conflict against each other. So brutal, savage, and lengthy were these wars that all recorded history prior to them was irrevocably lost. All reasons for the fighting, any knowledge to who or what had started it or why, we now have no way of knowing. Countless numbers wept. The atrocities committed by every side still haunt us all, even centuries removed from those dark days.

“The lore tells that the final battle of what would be called the Last War was held on a spring morning. What was the spark that ignited into the inferno that followed? No one knows for certain. Theories abound, but whatever vile action triggered it, it was enough to awaken something from deep within the earth: a monstrous being, an entity far beyond our understanding.  Was it always there, waiting for the day it could reveal itself? Or was it called into existence by our long history of bloodshed? Again, no one knows…

“On that morning, it erupted from beneath us, vast enough to block out the sky, black as night and boiling with hatred. With pitiless eyes of white-hot flame, it looked down upon our multitudes and spoke in a voice that split the skies and cracked the earth: “You fools” it said, and every sentient heard its words and trembled, “This world with all its beauty and promise was given to you, and you have squandered it. You have stained the earth with blood and darkness for far too long. Now your retribution is at hand. Mark my words, for I am DEATH, and all shall wither before me.”

The God of Death breathed, and all that its breath touched began to burn…”

[An excerpt from Godlore: Our Sacred Legacy and Foundations of Society, by Ash Caeruleus]

For the past half hour, there had been no words between them. Nothing save for the dead leaves crinkling and twigs snapping underfoot, the sighing of the breeze, and a few birds up in the branches, singing to warn of the encroaching twilight.

Numb… Hanami felt numb, disconnected from herself. Cold, despite the lingering heat of the late summer evening. It was shock settling upon her, she supposed. Shock at not only her new status as an exile—no, an Outcast—but that for her entire life, all she was taught and all she believed about this forest had been little but lies.  Deliberate lies, according to the buck called Zero. The foundations of her world were shaken apart. How and why anyone would go so far to distort the truth, she did not know.

She found herself wondering what else she had been lied to about.

“I’m sorry,” said Zero abruptly.

Hanami let out a short, sharp squeak. “I-I beg your pardon?” Hanami stammered as she ran her hands through her tail fur, trying to smooth it back down.

“Beg your pardon,” He looked back over his shoulder at her, smiling his sad little smile. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. Just now, or back there.”

“Ah.”

“As I said, most of the people who come here aren’t criminals. If they are, they never last long… but I needed to be sure you weren’t one of the bad ones.”

Hanami froze. Her ears pressed down flat.

“It’s all right now,” he said, trying to be gentle. “There’s no need to worry anymore.”

Shaking like a leaf in a gale, Hanami’s hands closed tight around her tail. A few dry sounds eked from her mouth, but no words would come.

“Did I say something wrong?” Zero held up his hands and cautiously backed away, giving her space. “Do you need help, or—”

“Best back up a few more paces, Takky,” said a new voice from a branch above them, languid and relaxed. “Look at her! She’s a cold-blooded killer, that one.”

Both squirrels’ heads snapped up to follow the voice, one considerably more alarmed than the other.

“Faun,” Zero sighed. “This might not be the best time.”

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Tasakeru, tasakeru.com, and all related contents, text, and media are the Intellectual Property (IP) of BHS and BHS Productions, registered in 2009, and may not be modified, reproduced, or changed in any way, shape, or form without the author's express permission. For more information on usage rights, see the From the Author page.

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